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Christian Unity

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St. Athanasius at Nicaea

Christian unity is an exalted goal that all faithful seek. We pray that God may grant His children to be united in faith. In order to achieve this unity, we must return to the Early Church, especially the Apostolic Era, to understand Christian unity. In the Book of Acts, we read, “Now all who believed were together, and had all things in common, and sold their possessions and goods, and divided them among all, as anyone had need” (Acts 2:44, 45), and also, “Now the multitude of those who believed were of one heart and one soul (4:32). The Book of Acts reveals the secret of this unity: “And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers” (Acts 2:42).

I. What do we mean by Christian Unity?

Christian unity refers to the unity of all Christians, but not the unity of the Church, because the Church is already united, as we pray in the Orthodox Creed, “We believe in the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church.” Our Lord Jesus Christ prayed for the unity of Christians, not the unity of the Church: “I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word…And the glory which You gave Me I have given them, that they may be one just as We are one (Jn 17:20, 22). Christians become united when they are committed in their membership in the Church of Christ. To fully understand this, we must understand the characteristics of the Church of Christ.

II. The Characteristics of the Church of Christ: One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic

A. One Church

The Church is the Body of Christ Who is the Head, as St. Paul the Apostle said, “And He is the head of the body, the church…” (Col 1:18). We are members in this Body, as the Apostle also said, “Now you are the body of Christ, and members individually” (1 Co 12:27). The Body of Christ is one, therefore the Church is one.

The Church is the Bride of Christ, as we read in St. Paul’s epistles, “For I am jealous for you with godly jealousy. For I have betrothed you to one husband, that I may present you as a chaste virgin to Christ” (2 Co 11:2) and “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for her” (Eph 5:25). Christ is one, therefore His Bride is one.

The Church is the Temple of God:

Now, therefore, you are no longer strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief cornerstone, in whom the whole building, being fitted together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord, in whom you also are being built together for a dwelling place of God in the Spirit. (Eph 2:19–22).

The Temple of God is one.

The Church of Christ is one Church for the Body of Christ is one, the Bride of Christ is one, and the Temple of God is one.

b. Holy Church

Jesus loved His Church and sacrificed Himself for Her “that He might sanctify and cleanse her with the washing of water by the word, that He might present her to Himself a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but that she should be holy and without blemish” (Eph 5:26–27).

c. Apostolic Church

The Church of Christ was established on the foundation of the teachings of the Holy Apostles: “And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers” (Acts 2:42). The Holy Apostles were witnesses to our Lord’s teaching and actions. They preserved what Christ taught and handed it down to successive generations. The Early Church Fathers did not teach a new doctrine, but preserved and handed down what the Holy Apostles gave them. St. Paul advised his disciple, St. Timothy, saying, “Take heed to yourself and to the doctrine. Continue in them, for in doing this you will save both yourself and those who hear you” (1 Ti 4:16), and also, “O Timothy! Guard what was committed to your trust, avoiding the profane and idle babblings and contradictions of what is falsely called knowledge—by professing it some have strayed concerning the faith. Grace be with you. Amen”(1 Ti 6:20–21). He also instructed St. Timothy to “continue in the things which you have learned and been assured of, knowing from whom you have learned them” (2 Ti 3:14).

III. Unity and Diversity

The unity of Christians does not reject diversity among Christians. Even the phrase “Catholic Church” refers to a diversity among believers — men and women; rich and poor; believers of different races and languages (cf. Gal 3:27, Col 3:10, 11, Acts 2). St. Paul spoke of a diversity of gifts among believers, saying, “There are diversities of gifts, but the same Spirit” (1 Co 12:4). He explained the diversity of gifts in the Church as the diversity of the members in the one Body (1 Col 12).

There is, however, no diversity in the faith, for the fundamental characteristic of Christian unity is one faith, as St. Paul said, “One Lord, one faith, one baptism” (Eph 4:5). Seeking Christian unity does not mean giving up the unity of faith, as St. Paul instructed us to “endeavor to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism” (Eph 4:3–5). During the time of the Holy Apostles, there appeared a number of people preaching strange doctrines that the Holy Church rejected and declared to be heresies. Anyone who preached an alien doctrine was excommunicated by the One, Holy, Apostolic Church.

In spite of his characteristic teachings on love and acceptance, St. John the Apostle did not accept those who preached strange doctrines, but rather, considered them even antichrists: “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us; but they went out that they might be made manifest, that none of them were of us” (1 Jn 2:19). St. Paul spoke about such heretics in the following way:

For such are false apostles, deceitful workers, transforming themselves into apostles of Christ. And no wonder! For Satan himself transforms himself into an angel of light. Therefore it is no great thing if his ministers also transform themselves into ministers of righteousness, whose end will be according to their works (2 Co 11:13–15).

We observe St. Paul’s teaching that such heretics present themselves in various forms and even change their appearance as if they were the Lord’s Apostles, which means they pretended to preach the doctrine of Christ, but in reality, they preached heresies. For this reason, the Holy Apostles and Early Church Fathers were abundantly clear:

As we have said before, so now I say again, if anyone preaches any other gospel to you than what you have received, let him be accursed. For do I now persuade men, or God? Or do I seek to please men? For if I still pleased men, I would not be a bondservant of Christ (Ga 1:9–10).

At times, not everyone wanted to hear the truth, but instead, a soft word. This is why St. Paul considered preaching the truth as pleasing to the Lord, not men. It is therefore strange today that some people accuse those who seek unity as being fanatics or somehow opposed to unity. To such people, we respond with St. Paul’s words, “For do I now persuade men, or God? Or do I seek to please men? For if I still pleased men, I would not be a bondservant of Christ” (Gal 1:10).

St. John the Apostle warned believers against heretics, saying, “If anyone comes to you and does not bring this doctrine, do not receive him into your house nor greet him; for he who greets him shares in his evil deeds” (2 Jn 10–11).

The diversity in the Church of Christ does not mean diversity in conduct or in the spiritual life. The Church calls all faithful to live a life of holiness and rejects unrepentant sinners. While it is true that the Church accepts everyone, She does not accept those who live in sin with no repentance. The Church in Corinth, for example, did not accept the sin of the man who sinned with the wife of his father, and he was excommunicated by St. Paul (1 Cor 5:4-10). Later, when he repented, the Church accepted him (2 Cor 2:6-8).

The Holy Church calls Her people to live a holy life, but those who live in sin must repent to be accepted, as St. Paul wrote,

But now I have written to you not to keep company with anyone named a brother, who is sexually immoral, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or an extortioner—not even to eat with such a person. For what have I to do with judging those also who are outside? Do you not judge those who are inside? But those who are outside God judges. Therefore “put away from yourselves the evil person” (1 Co 5:11–13).

He also wrote in the same epistle,

Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived. Neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals, nor sodomites, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus and by the Spirit of our God (1 Co 6:9–11).

Nowadays, we hear the voices of those who call us to accept everyone without judging their lives or personal conduct. In practice, this refers, for example, to accepting people who are married outside of the Holy Church in civil marriage or even homosexual marriage. Such people, we are told, reflect a type of diversity and the Church must accept them all. Those who offer this perspective mislead themselves and others. They speak about a strange and false unity that is wholly unrelated to the Holy Church of Christ.

IV. Obstacles to Christian Unity

The Book of Acts presents a beautiful picture of the lives of Christians in the Apostolic era: “Now the multitude of those who believed were of one heart and one soul; neither did anyone say that any of the things he possessed was his own, but they had all things in common” (Ac 4:32). This beautiful picture was not without obstacles, however. The Holy Apostles preserved Christian unity by guiding the faithful in the midst of several obstacles, such as the following.

a. The Spirit of Complaint

As Christianity spread throughout the world, there was a diversity of believers from Hebrews (i.e., Jews who converted to Christianity) and Hellenists (i.e., non-Jews who became Christian). We read in the Book of Acts, “Now in those days, when the number of the disciples was multiplying, there arose a complaint against the Hebrews by the Hellenists, because their widows were neglected in the daily distribution” (Ac 6:1). The spirit of complaint was about to divide the early Christians between these two groups, but the Holy Apostles dealt with the matter by establishing a new rank, the rank of the deacon, to support the service and maintain unity. They chose Stephen, who was also the first martyr, to be the head of the deacons. We notice from the list of the first seven deacons in the Book of Acts that they were all Hellenists, which reveals the wisdom of the Holy Apostles through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit in allowing the Hellenists to share in the service to overcome the spirit of complaint.

b. The Spirit of Partisanship

The Church of Corinth suffered from the spirit of partisanship even though it was founded by St. Paul the Apostle and served by St. Apollos. Some of the people said, “We are of Paul” whereas others said, “We are of Apollos,” and yet others, “We are of Peter.” St. Paul dealt with the situation by addressing the Corinthians in the following manner:

Now I plead with you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment. (1 Co 1:10). Now I say this, that each of you says, “I am of Paul,” or “I am of Apollos,” or “I am of Cephas,” or “I am of Christ.” Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? (1 Co 1:12–13).

He also told them,

For where there are envy, strife, and divisions among you, are you not carnal and behaving like mere men? For when one says, “I am of Paul,” and another, “I am of Apollos,” are you not carnal? Who then is Paul, and who is Apollos, but ministers through whom you believed, as the Lord gave to each one? I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the increase. (1 Co 3:3–6).

c. Wrong Teaching

The dangerous obstacle that hinders Christian unity is found in the people who teach wrong teachings that are inconsistent with the teachings of the Holy Apostles. In the Apostolic era and subsequent generations, the Holy Church faced many heretics who tried to divide the Church and excommunicated them to preserve the unity of the faithful based on the one true faith. For example, the Church confronted those who insisted that non-Jews must first become Jews before embracing the Christian faith. In the first Christian council at Jerusalem, this and other strange teachings were rejected (Acts 15). The Church also confronted those who denied the Incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ. St. John spoke about them and called them antichrists (Jn 1, 2). St. Peter also mentioned false teachers in his second epistle, “But there were also false prophets among the people, even as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Lord who bought them, and bring on themselves swift destruction” (2 Pe 2:1).

d. Sin

The spread of sin among the faithful hinders Christian unity, because it separates them from the membership of the Holy Church. The Holy Apostles were so eager to preserve the unity and holiness of the Church that they banned the sinners who refused to repent their sins while accepting the repentant sinners with joy (cf. Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5, Simon Magus in Acts 8, and the repentant sinner in Corinth in 1 Cor 5 and 2 Cor 2).

V. The Leaders of the Church and Christian Unity

We previously referred to the role of church leaders in preserving the unity of the Church against the spirits of complaint, partisanship, wrong teachings, and sin. For these reasons, a council was held in Jerusalem and the new rank of deacon was established. The Holy Apostles banned heretics and unrepentant sinners. St. Paul offers us a wonderful example from his trip to Jerusalem in which he communicated to Sts. Peter, John, and James the Gospel that he was preaching.

In light of this, we are surprised to find some people who attack the Holy Church’s canons and call for a revolution against the Church’s leaders to achieve unity. It is a demonic idea that brings chaos, not unity, among the faithful. Such people should remember the lessons of those who did the same thing in the sixteenth century, which resulted in Christians being divided into thousands of groups.

VI. Church Rites and Christian Unity

The word “rite” refers to an order in worship. The aim of Christian rites is the unity of all faithful worshipping with one soul and one spirit. The rites of the Church protect Christian worship from disintegrating into chaos in which everyone does what he or she wants. Unfortunately, we encounter some who consider Christian rites as limiting the work of the Holy Spirit in the faithful during worship. Such people claim that the Holy Spirit leads the believer in worship to do as he pleases, like scream, dance, sit, stand, lift up his hands, move, and hold others around him. Such an idea is in conflict with the doctrine of the Church of Christ as handed down by the Holy Apostles. When St. Paul realized that the spiritual gift of speaking in tongues was causing chaos in the Church at Corinth, he laid down regulations that no one be permitted to speak in a tongue unless there was an interpreter and the talk was done with order (1 Cor 14). St. Paul did not consider laying down such a rule as binding the work of the Holy Spirit. He even said, “And the spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets. For God is not the author of confusion but of peace, as in all the churches of the saints” (1 Co 14:32–33) and also, “If anyone thinks himself to be a prophet or spiritual, let him acknowledge that the things which I write to you are the commandments of the Lord” (1 Co 14:37). Furthermore, he commanded, “Let all things be done decently and in order” (1 Co 14:40).

The rites of the Church are an apostolic principle that unite the faithful and strengthen the work of the Holy Spirit. They also provide a beautiful testimony to those outside the Church. As for the chaos in worship that is evident today, St. Paul warned the believers, saying, “Therefore if the whole church comes together in one place, and all speak with tongues, and there come in those who are uninformed or unbelievers, will they not say that you are out of your mind?” (1 Co 14:23). What shall those outside the Church say if they find different believers gathering, shaking, screaming, and sometimes even dancing to loud music? Is this proper Christian worship? Is this the work of the Holy Spirit? Does this comport with the words of the Holy Spirit on the mouth of St. Paul, “Let all things be done decently and in order” (1 Co 14:40)?

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